Five Favorite Books

It’s always hard to pick a few favorite books. For one thing, I think it’s easy to slip into listing only favorites from childhood, because those formative years are so vividly imprinted on us. For another, I know a lot of authors personally, and I don’t want to hurt any feelings, nor do I want my personal love for an author to bias me in favor of the book (we can call this my Ann Leckie rule).

I’m going to limit my favorites on this list to authors who are deceased, or who I’ve never met personally. …I’m also just going to let the childhood thing go, though, and list some books I’ve loved since I was young.

I’m also limiting this to books with speculative elements, just to make the volume a bit more manageable.

Biting the Sun by Tanith Lee — This was my favorite book through high school. Tanith Lee’s dreamlike, intricate prose reads like a string of jewels with dazzling clarity. I was enamored of the strange world–a merging of utopia and dystopia. In retrospect, I think its treatment of gender was a strong allure. People could design new bodies when they were bored with their existing ones, and switch to male or female and back with minimal fuss. Wouldn’t that be cool?

Beloved by Toni Morrison – I first read this in college. The raw, painful emotion is deeply affecting, and sensorily rendered. It’s beautiful, though also dark and unflinching in its dealings with its intense depiction of the psychological aftermath of slavery. (Also, the poetic passage in the middle is brilliant and weird, and I’m grateful that I was lucky enough to be reading the book in a class where the teacher was able to help us interpret it, because I’m not sure I’d have understood on my own.) Toni Morrison may be the greatest living writer, although of course that’s a silly thing to say, because there is never one “greatest” by an objective criteria. She’s clearly in the top tier of brilliance one way or another, and for my standards, is a strong contender for greatest.

Lilith’s Brood by Octavia Butler – I’m going to make another “greatest” claim, which is that Octavia Butler is the best and most important science fiction writer of the twentieth century. (Obviously, there are strong arguments that can be made for other people, too.) Lilith’s Brood is, I think, the height of her talent. It’s emotionally vivid, and takes place in a deeply strange world. Butler’s aliens really read like aliens. Like many of her books, Lilith’s Brood considers how humanity might evolve in the future, and whether it’s possible for us to shed our instincts toward violence and xenophobia.

And here are a couple of recent books I’m excited by, written by authors I’ve never met. I don’t know if they will stand in my pantheon forever, but they were books I’ve found impactful in the past few years.

The Walls Around Us by Nova Ren Suma – A dark horror novel that brilliantly weaves together multiple timelines. It’s told from the perspectives of two teenage girls — one imprisoned for allegedly murdering her stepfather, and the other a ballerina. The ballerina’s best friend has been convicted for murder, and now she’s the first girl’s cell mate. The rendering of the characters is sharp, interesting, and emotionally engaging, and the tightly woven plot of flashbacks and revelations, creates a magnetic, urgent force that draws you through the book.

Everybody Sees the Ants by A. S. King – It’s sort of random that I picked this book by A. S. King as opposed to one of the other books by A. S. King, almost all of which are excessively brilliant. (The others are merely quite good.) I picked this one because I remember the plot best, and because I argued for its inclusion on the Norton ballot when I was on the jury. This book has a spare, almost aggressive style, which helps illuminate the psychology of the main character. The teenaged main character is a boy who is bullied for seeming insufficiently masculine and socially adept, and I like it when books treat that subject matter seriously and well. I thought it did an excellent job of capturing that trauma, and the reactions it can create.

So, there’s five books, y’all! What are your favorites?

My obsession with the show The Good Place

I am *so* into the TV show The Good Place. I love it when screenwriters can pull off something with such pinpoint precise structure and dialogue. It’s one of those pieces of media that you occasionally see, and think, “Damn, I wish I’d written that.” I think I’d be really terrible at writing for TV, actually. So it’s a good thing that I didn’t write it.

The Good Place (if you don’t know) is a comedy show that takes place in the afterlife. It tackles philosophy in a way I haven’t seen on TV before. The show contains a set of scenarios that invites the reader to ask, “What is morality?” Like the actual literature, it refuses a simple answer. It overtly discusses many of the complex (and sometimes overly simplified) answers that philosophers have come up with.

I really respect media that can be both informative and entertaining. I never feel like The Good Place is preaching to me, but it polishes up/builds my knowledge of philosophy. It does another thing I really like also–the writers’ passion for the subject comes through so boldly that it makes me care about the subject, too, even if it’s not something I’m natively interested in. (The TV show Slings & Arrows does this with some Shakespeare tragedies; the writers’ love just saturates it.)

I watch a lot of TV because I’m addicted to narratives, but when I read anything in prose, my work brain kicks in. TV avoids the work brain. I usually judge TV with lower standards than prose, because I consume so much of it, but The Good Place is just awesome.

“I will be wild. I will be brutal. I will encircle you.”

A few people have made graphics featuring a quote from one of my short stories. I’m including two of them below, which take the quote and make a narrative out of it (using movie images), which is neat. It’s awesome that anyone did this at all, but if I’m going to call out one extra awesome thing, it’s the fancy typesetting in the first set.

The quote is from my short story, “A Memory of Wind:”

I will be wild. I will be brutal. I will encircle you and conquer you. I will be more powerful than your boats, and your swords, and your blood lust. I will be inevitable.

“A Memory of Wind” is a retelling of the Greek myth about Iphigenia, whose father, Agamemnon, sacrificed her so his army could sail to Troy. The classic Greek tragedy Iphigenia at Aulis tells Agamemnon’s story of struggle as he decides whether or not to kill his daughter. There’s a modern play that tells the story from Clytemnestra’s perspective–Iphigenia’s mother and Agamemnon’s wife–and it’s very good. I figured Iphigenia needed a story from her own perspective, too, so I wrote “A Memory of Wind.”

Iphigenia’s story is terribly depressing since she is betrayed (and killed) by her father at a young age. She doesn’t have much opportunity to change her fate. “A Memory of Wind” tells the story from after her death, when she has been changed into a wind powerful enough to blow the ships to Troy.

The thing that interests me about this quote is that, in context, it’s actually an expression of Iphigenia’s futility. When Artemis transforms her into a wind, and she fills with that power, she has a moment’s mad fantasy about avenging her murder. That’s this quote. But the fantasy is abruptly cut off:

But no, I am helpless again, always and ever a hostage to someone else’s desires. With ease, Artemis imposes her will on my wild fury. I feel the tension of her hands drawing me back like a bowstring. With one strong, smooth motion, she aims me at your fleet. Fiercely, implacably, I blow you to Troy.

So there’s an irony in the quote’s original context.

However! Pull it out of the context, and it’s a perfectly cromulent expression of power, anger, and resolve.

So, at some point, someone pulled the quote out of the story. Maybe they saw its potential for being empowering and that’s where the context shift happened. Or maybe they posted the quote somewhere–and then people who haven’t read the story would, of course, see the powerful and angry side of it.

So, basically, this is all really cool. First, some people made fan art of a thing I did — awesome! Second, pretty pictures! Third, I get a nifty shift in perspective.

From hermiohes:

1 wild

I will be wild. I will be brutal.

2 encircle

I will encircle you and conquer you.

3 powerful

I will be more powerful than your boats, and your swords, and your blood lust.

4 inevitable

I will be inevitable.

 

From reyoflights:

1 wild

I will be wild.

2 brutal

I will be brutal.

3 encircle

I will encircle you and conquer you.

4 powerful

I will be more powerful than your boats,

5 blood lust

and your swords, and your blood lust.

6 inevitableI will be inevitable.

Skeptical birds.

I love that I can google image search for the term “skeptical birds” and get skeptical birds.

From this, I have learned that owls are the most skeptical of birds.

skepticalbird2

(photograph from Reddit)

I only included one, but there are many skeptical owl pictures.

skepticalbird3

(image from Travel News in Namibia)

Vultures can also be skeptical, to no one’s surprise.

skepticalbird1

(Image from hewhowalkswithtigers at deviant.art–
lots of beautiful bird pictures there worth checking out.)

Cute birds get in on it as well.

3D Printed Fashion

kinematic petal dress

I linked to this from my twitter account awhile ago, but it’s really cool.

The Museum of Fine Arts, Boston (MFA) commissioned Nervous System to create a new dress for the exhibition #techstyle which runs from March 6 through July 10, 2016. The exhibition explores the synergy between fashion and technology and how it is not only changing the way designers design, but also the way people interact with their clothing.

Inspired by petals, feathers and scales, we developed a new textile language for Kinematics where the interconnected elements are articulated as imbricating shells. Like our previous garments, this dress can be customized to the wearer’s body through a 3d scan, and additionally, each element is now individually customizable: varying in direction, length, and shape.

Thinking about it as a science fiction writer, it’s another step on the road toward awesome things that will, nevertheless, not be as awesome as they are in Star Trek (because replicators aren’t really viable, damn it). Still, ordering a custom 3D printed dress? That’s pretty Star Trekkie shopping.